Three years ago this week, I made it to Mount Katahdin….sort of. I’d planned to walk all the way there from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. I only made it 1,405 miles to a road crossing (and convenience store with decent pizza) in New York. My feet had been in pain for more than a month. Every step hurt. I couldn’t make my daily mileage and I certainly had stopped having any fun. Sitting there, eating my pizza, I knew I had to get off the trail. A friend who lived in the area took me to her house and got me to a doctor. Prognosis: The bones in my feet were breaking down. My hike was over, unless I wanted to suffer permanent damage.
Most would consider me an experienced long distance hiker. I’ve completed 1,405 miles on the Appalachian Trail (summer 2014) and I just finished The Camino in Spain. Each trail is different. I found there were things that were unique to the Camino de Santiago. While there are many paths to Santiago, I took the most popular, The Camino Frances or The French Way. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago. I skipped the first 30km to avoid hiking the mountains during the first week of April. (It turned out to be a good choice. There was heavy snowfall and part of the trail was closed that week). I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2016. It took me 37 days to walk the roughly 450 miles (750km, approximately), which included a day off in both Leon and Burgos.
It turned out to be a cold spring, with substantial flooding. If you are lucky and have great weather, you probably need to carry even less than what I did.
WHAT NOT TO BRING
First let’s start with what you DON’T need.
- Tent–It’s mostly private land, so there is almost nowhere to legally set up a tent. You can set up at some hostels, but you don’t save much money this way.
- Cooking equipment–There are bars, cafes, grocery stores and restaurants in every little town where you can eat or buy prepared food. If you want to cook, stay in a hostel with a kitchen.
- Water purification–Every town has a fountain and the water is probably better than what comes out of the tap in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, (although, that’s not saying much).
- Laundry soap–You can hand wash items with the same soap you use for your body. Mostly hostels will supply soap for automatic washers (lavadoras). Some will also have dryers (secadoras).
- Pillow–Every hostel I stayed in had a pillow.
- Blow up mattress—Every hostel I stayed in had real mattresses. I did see at least two churches where pilgrims could stay for free, but they slept directly on the stone floor. If you are really on a budget or going during July/August (the height of the season when places run out of beds), you might bring one of these along.
- Food—I carried only a few snacks most days—nuts, cheese or fruit. Towns are 2-6km apart and you can almost always find a place to eat. If you are not sure about supplies ahead, get a sandwich (bocadillo).
Carry less and you will enjoy it more. Most guidebooks will say that you should keep your pack under 20 pounds. I carried less than that on the Appalachian Trail! I didn’t weight my Camino pack, but I’d guess it was 10-12 pounds.
WHAT TO BRING
- Sleeping bag/sleep sheet—I hiked in April/May 2016. It happened to be one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We had several unseasonably cold nights. Some dropped to freezing. I was grateful I’d brought a summer weight, down sleeping bag and added a blanket in a few hostels. If you hike when it’s warmer, you can probably just do with a sleep sheet or bag liner. Most hostels had blankets, but not all. Some don’t even have sheets, so bring something.
- Camp towel—You need a towel that dries easily, so no cotton. Mine was fairly small, but others had towels large enough to wrap their bodies in. Get something you can attached to the outside of your pack on sunny days so it can dry while you hike.
- Clothes—By far, the most important item is good walking shoes. I like Merrill trail runners with thick soles and I add an additional insole for arch support and cushion. The next most important item is socks. I use silk sock liners and Darn Tough hiking socks. I had three sets of each. For the rest of the clothing, make sure everything is rugged and quick dry. No Cotton or blue jeans. These are the clothes I brought, which includes what I wore each day. This is about one set more than you have to have, so it’s possible to carry even less: Three sets each of underwear (sport bras and quick dry panties), shirts (two long sleeve wool, one short sleeve poly). Two pair of hiking pants. One button down camp shirt that could layer over my other shirts for warmth (optional). One pair hiking shorts (I only hiked in them twice. It was cold most days.). A travel vest with lots of pockets. BTW, I hate the pants with the zip off legs. They sound like a great idea, but the zippers seldom hold up and they always seem to hit the place were my thighs rub together when I walk. Can you say blisters? The quality of men’s pants seem to be better made than women’s. My hiking companion found pants that resisted stains and light rain. They were superior to mine. Whatever you buy, make sure they have pockets.
- Spare camp shoes—I have an off brand that looks like a pair of Crocs, but a bit lighter in weight. I wore these around town and they doubled as shower shoes. Many people use flip flops. The advantage of Crocs is that they can also be used for hiking short distances if you have bad blisters, very swollen feet a toe injury or your regular hiking shoes completely fail.
- Water bottle—I just re-use a soda or juice bottle. Nothing is lighter in weight or less expensive. When the bottle gets banged up, I buy a new drink. You don’t have to carry a lot of water at any given time since almost every town has a fountain where you can fill up. Lots of people use those large bladders that fit inside a backpack, but I don’t like them. They leak, are tough to clean and way too easy to overfill. Water is heavy and since there is plenty of clean water readily available, it’s unnecessary to carry much. While I usually had two 1-liter bottles, I often just drank a lot of water at each fountain, then carried half a bottle.
- Credit card/bank card/cash—Make sure to let your banks know you are traveling. Find an ATM card and a credit card that will work in Europe and won’t charge you an arm and a leg in fees. You will mostly need cash. Small hostels and cafes won’t accept credit cards.
- Passport—You will have to produce this for every hostel.
- Pilgrims Credential—This is your Pilgrim’s Passport which you will have stamped every day at hostels and cafes along the way. This is to prove where you walked and will serve as a nice souvenir later. You can get this along the way or order it ahead of time.
- Plastic zip-lock bag for your Passport/CCs/Credential/Cash/etc.—A simple plastic bag will store everything, keep stuff dry and will be easy to carry. This is essentially a waterproof wallet. I took mine with me everywhere–even the shower. I slept with it under my pillow. This is the one thing you cannot afford to lose.
- Coat/Fleece—I wore my down jacket often during this cold spring. It packed up very small, but still kept me warm. I even slept in it several times. I like fleece for the warmth and light weight, but it doesn’t pack up as small as I’d like. This can double as a pillow if the one at the hostel isn’t comfy.
- Hat—for sun and rain
- Buff—Doubled as a sleep mask, ear muffs or headband. Don’t know what a buff is?
- Rain gear—Jacket/rain pants/poncho/pack cover/pack liner/umbrella or whatever combination works for you. This spring in Northern Spain was unseasonably wet and cold. We saw rain 32 out of the 37 hiking days. We got hail twice and saw lightening every evening for most of a week. I had a rain jacket and added an umbrella, which worked especially well in town. Near the end of the hike, the temperatures were just warm enough that I over-heated in a full coverage rain jacket. I’d wear the jacket, unzipped, and use the umbrella to keep out most of the rain. If it were very cold and windy, I’d put the umbrella away and add rain pants. If we’d had sunshine, the umbrella would have doubled as a parasol since there’s little tree coverage on this trail. I made sure the rain jacket was large enough to go over my down jacket in case it got really cold. Sometimes I wore the rain jacket just to deal with the wind. I’ve had poor luck with ponchos—somehow I can’t seem to stay dry in them. BTW, check to make sure your rain jacket is still keeping out the rain. I brought the same one I’d used on the Appalachian Trail two years before, but it had lost its waterproof properties. I had to replace it. I also recommend a pack cover, a pack liner (I use trash compacter bags, but any trash can liner will do), and I have each of my sets of gear in multi-colored, water-proof stuff sacks. DON’T GET ALL YOUR STUFF SACKS THE SAME COLOR. Color coding makes it easy to know your clothes bag from your sleeping bag at a glance.
- Backpack—The less you carry, the fewer features you need in a backpack. I originally thought I’d take a smaller, summer backpack that I used on the Appalachian Trail. However, with so much less gear, I didn’t need anything large or substantial. I found a durable day pack and wore a travel vest (a vest with lots of pockets) to carry small items.
- First aid kit—Don’t over-do it here. I’m talking about band-aids (plasters in Europe) and the anti-inflammatory of your choice. I also used a simple knee brace. Remember you will be able to buy what you need along the way. I highly recommend buying Compeed Brand for covering your blisters. Nothing sticks as well. They are easy to find in Spain.
- Personal items—toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, comb, small bar of soap, small container of shampoo. You can easily replace this stuff as you run out, so use a small size/travel size of each.
- Guidebook—I used the most popular English guide by John Brierley. The maps weren’t always accurate, but over-all it gave me the info I needed. He spends WAY too much time talking about things that are off trail for me. After I’ve done 20km, I’m not about to add an additional 5km just to see another church). He’s also clearly tuned into a spiritual side that I can’t relate to. I saw a Michelin Guide that was smaller and about as good, though many hostels weren’t mentioned in it. As I used pages, I tore them out and threw them away to lighten my load. Yes, the ounces add up.
- Hiking poles (Optional)—I use them when going up or down hill and I think they save my knees. These can be difficult to travel with on a plane, however. If you don’t have checked luggage to put them in (and make sure they fit in your luggage), consider buying a cheaper pair after you get to Spain. Or do without.
- Phone/iPad/Camera/Journal (Optional)—Most hostels and restaurants have free wifi, so you can check in with the folks back home by email. I have an unlocked smart phone and put a Spanish SIM card in it. For 40 Euros, I got the SIM card, a new phone number and enough data for 3 months in Spain, since I use it frugally. Using Apps like FaceBook Messenger or WhatsApp, you can even make international phone calls for free when you have wifi. If you carry any of these items, make sure you have chargers for them, waterproof bags to keep them dry and a plug converter for Europe.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Most guidebooks will lay out a 30-33 day trek starting from SJPP to Santiago, roughly 500 miles. Take longer so you can enjoy it more. Remember, you can start anywhere or you can walk other routes. If the Compostela (the document they give you at the end to verify you did the walk) is important to you, you only have to walk the last 100k (or bike 200k). And you can do this at your speed. Why push yourself with 30k day when 10-15-20 is so much more enjoyable? Personally, I say take all the time you can. Stay an extra day in Burgos and Leon and really enjoy those lovely cathedrals and art museums while resting your feet. It’s the journey, not the destination! Can you take 40 days? If not, then just choose a shorter route. Or decide to do the walk in sections.
WHEN TO WALK
If I had it to do again, I’d go in the fall. Spring will always be wettest, though this particular year had record flooding. July/August is the high season and the hottest time of year. It can be difficult to find a free bed in the hostels and heavy sweating is not my thing. Winter is too cold for me and some hostels and cafes won’t be open. I’d go September and October, starting about a week after Labor Day. By mid-November, it’s getting pretty cold and dark, plus hostels and cafes in small towns will start to close.
- I budgeted 35 Euros a day and came in a bit under budget. You can do it for less by eating from grocery stores and staying in the lowest priced hostels. You can easily spend more by staying in hotels or pensions and having a service carry your backpack (mochila) for you each day (5-6 Euros a day).
- Hostels are 5-12€. The closer you get to Santiago, the more expensive. Once you get within 100Km of Santiago, the prices are 10-15 Euros. There are more people, too, and more of a party atmosphere.
- Food: breakfast of 2 eggs, toast and cafe con leche is 5-6€. A more common Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee for 3-4€. BTW, you’ll have to ask for butter and jam. Toast usually means dry toast.
- Pilgrims meals are 9-12€. It’s a big meal, including a first and second course, dessert and wine or water. There is usually a vegetarian option, but it might be little more than pasta with a few veggies.
- Coffee or a caña (short, draft beer) is usually 1.5 Euros.
- Laundry—usually 3 Euros to wash and 3 Euros to dry. Typically, the hostel wants to do the wash, so double check your belongings as soon as you get them back. You aren’t carrying much and you can’t afford to lose socks or underwear.
I hope this information can help you have a successful hike!
While I like to think of myself as an experienced long distance hiker, I found there were things that were unique to Spain and the Camino de Santiago. There are many paths to Santiago de Compostela. My comments apply to The French Way, but you may also find they are true for other paths. I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago in the spring of 2016, roughly 750km.
Cold water only in bathroom sinks–This is a first world country, so you can expect working toilets. But don’t expect the bathroom sinks to have hot water, at least not in restaurants or hostels. Most taps are auto shut off, too. Almost every town you walk through will have a pilgrims fountain for water, also auto shut off. I find that this feature simply does not save any water since they go on for a full minute. BTW, while the toilets were always in working order, I hit three in a row with no seat! And it’s easy for public toilets to run out of toilet paper. Bring some tissues with you. I needed them about once a week. Do your best to use actual rest rooms, rather than go behind buildings or clumps of trees. This path goes through private property.
Showers are also auto shut off—Compared to the hostels I’ve stayed in along the Appalachian Trail, I found the Spanish hostels to be very clean. But the water was almost always auto shut off in sinks and showers. Again, this “water saving feature” often wasted water. I’d have used less without the device. Of course, you only need one idiot to leave the water running for this to be a good idea. Incidentally, the showers were nice and warm, even if you couldn’t adjust the temperature.
Lights are auto shut off—it wasn’t 100% of the time, but usually hall and bathroom lights are motion sensitive in hostels and many cafes. In practice you spend a lot of time in the dark in a strange bathroom, flailing your arms around, trying to get the light to turn back on. Or trying to remember where the switch was now that you can’t see. If you get up in the middle of the night in a crowded hostel to use the facilities, you are likely to flood the room with light when you step into the hall. Most of the lights I saw were LED, and I don’t think I saw a single incandescent bulb. Did I mention that you need ear plugs and a sleep mask? I used my buff to cover my eyes, but a bandana works too.
On Sundays, everything closed—It’s like living in the US in the 1950’s. And not just the postal service, government buildings and offices. I also mean the grocery store, pharmacy and almost all retail. While cafes may be open, they will likely have a reduced menu.
Dinner is served after 8p—Lots of restaurants don’t even open until 8pm. Bars that are open will often serve no food, not even appetizers, between 4:30 and 8pm. It’s not unusual for the Spanish to sit down to eat at 10pm and stay until midnight. Oddly, the small towns were most likely to make adjustments for pilgrims who want to eat early and go to sleep early. The larger the city, the harder it was to find food at, say, 6pm. In Santiago de Compostela, we found exactly 1 place that would serve food before 8pm.
Nothing opens before 10a—The Spanish are not morning people. Since they eat late, they also start things late. Breakfast is often a café con leche and bread or croissant. A second breakfast may come about 10:30 or 11a. For hikers, it means you may or may not get coffee before you leave the hostel. If caffeine is important to you, I recommend putting tea bags in your water the night before. Generally, by 8am you can find somewhere that will serve coffee. This was fine for me since I hiked in the spring when the path wasn’t as busy, but in the summer it’s a race to get to the next hostel and secure a bed. People get up ridiculously early to beat the heat and other hikers.
Most hikers only do the last 100 km–I was shocked to get near the end of the trail and find myself suddenly among huge groups of hikes, fighting for bed space. Many were high school and college aged walkers on a mobile party. I love quiet walks on dirt paths, but some days were non-stop music and talking. You only have to do the last 100km to get a Compostela and that’s all these groups were after. I hated most of my last week walking, but was too invested to quit.
Siesta 2-4:30p—Cafes serve breakfast until noon and lunch is delayed until mid-afternoon, followed by a nap. Grocery store, offices and all retail will close during this time. A bar or café may or may not be open. (Even foreign embassies are closed during these hours.) Since this is often the time when you arrive in the town you are going to spend the night in, it’s pretty inconvenient if you need something from the pharmacy.
Bars serve food—Most bars have a kitchen, though their hours may vary greatly. Some will serve full meals including breakfast. Most will at least have appetizers, which you can easily make into a meal. In Spain, they are called pinchos, pinxos or tapas and you’ll find them in cases on the bar. You can usually just point at what you want. Common offerings are tortilla (A cake made of egg and potatoes, popular for second breakfast), deep-fried croquets (which can be cheese, meat, vegetables or just about anything), a skewer of olives and pickled vegetables, cheeses or a slice of French bread topped with anything—shrimp, cheese, ham, octopus…whatever they have handy. These are usually 1-5 Euros depending on size and variety.
Pillow and pillow case—Every hostel I stayed in had pillows. Most had at least a bottom sheet. Some also had blankets. A few provided (or sold) a single use, non-woven cover to put over the pillow and mattress. The pillows were not like we’d have in The States, however. They are longer—the width of a single bed—but narrow. And the pillow case is open on both ends.
When I started hiking the Appalachian Trail March 1 of 2014, I knew I wasn’t the strongest hiker out there. I couldn’t carry as much weight as I used to and I had little experience camping and hiking in winter conditions. I was prepared to learn a lot. The one thing I thought I knew was gear. I was very sure I had chosen the right equipment for my hike.
So it is very humbling to admit that only a handful of items were still with me by the end of the trip. I changed everything except:
- One long sleeve, button down shirt, which I still wear.
- The trash compactor bag (not just a trash bag) I lined my backpack with. This held up well and kept everything dry.
- A simple down jacket from REI (which I used as a pillow in warm weather).
- Silk bag liner (which I sent home in the summer).
- Silk long underwear (which I sent home in the summer).
Before I totally forget the details, I wanted to put down all of the changes I made to my hiking gear and why. These changes obviously increased the cost of my hike immensely, though in most cases I had purchased the original item from REI. I highly recommend buying equipment from REI because they have an outstanding return policy. They are not, unfortunately, easy to buy from while you are on the trail, but they will let you ship anything back if you are a member and it was purchased within a year.
I started with a 27F Women’s Big Agnes Bag. I ended with a Western Mountaineering 10F Down sleeping bag, (cost, roughly $550).
Why I changed: The Big Agnes bag is a perfectly good sleeping bag; it simply wasn’t warm enough for me and for the conditions. I had originally planned to start the hike April 1, but started a month earlier than that. I needed more warmth for what turned out to be a cold, extended winter season. Also, I sleep cold.
I switched to a lightweight, summer bag the first week of July. It was down, so a bit pricy, and rated for 35F. It worked well, but was not dry down, so needed airing out in the sun often to keep it really dry and fluffy. By July, it was too warm to use most nights, but I kept it.
I started with the 70 liter, GoLite Jam. I almost immediately changed to the ULA Catalyst (cost $250). By summer, I changed to the ULA Circuit (cost $250). ULA packs were very popular on the trail this year and almost everyone I talked to loved theirs. The packs are virtually identical, only the size is different.
Why I changed: The GoLite Jam was the most horrible pack I’ve ever owned. It didn’t hold the stated weight (30 pounds) and all the straps were showing wear by day three. One broke on the third day of my hike. The worst was the fit, which got more painful with each step. If I’d had to use this pack for the whole trip, I’d have thrown in the towel that day.
At day 3 at Mountain Crossings, I was fitted with a ULA Catalyst. I’ve never had a better fitting pack in my life. It has never shown any wear, is water resistant, versatile and roomy. The only reason I went to the ULA Circuit is that after a while I needed less room. I kept reducing my gear weight, and needed less volume. The Circuit was smaller and a pound less in weight. I cannot recommend these two packs highly enough. Also, please visit this the outfitter and hostel at Mountain Crossings when you go through Neels Gap, GA. Let them go through your pack and lighten your load. Don’t be embarrassed. It will keep you hiking longer than any other thing I can recommend. I bought the Circuit at the Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia and they are also good, knowledgeable folk with solid advice for hikers.
Why I changed: In a mix up, I briefly lost my Big Agnes Fly Creek tent, 3 days before I reached Franklin, NC. At the time, I didn’t think I would get my tent back and so bought a replacement at Outdoor 76. I needed the item immediately and there were no Fly Creek tents available in town. The Big Agnes tent is excellent. Both the Fly Creek and the Copper Spur models were very popular on the trail this year.
The day after I bought the new tent, my old tent was returned to me. I decided to keep the new one because it was only 2 pounds (about a pound less than the Fly Creek) and used my hiking poles as support. I was very happy with this tent. There are several ways to set it up and though condensation is a problem in the most closed down set up, I think it’s the best single walled tent I’ve seen. At Outdoor 76, they cut a ground cloth of Tyvek for me for an addition $8. Please visit this outfitter when you go through Franklin. They were kind and gave me good advice.
Why I changed: The Big Agnes pad is a fine sleeping pad. It is even possible to sleep on your side with this pad–something you can’t often say. But it weighed 18 ounces and I simply had to cut the weight of my load. Also, I didn’t have the lung capacity to blow up the full length pad by the end of the day. The ThermaRest was 9 ounces and because it was ¾ length, it was easier to inflate. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but it was adequate for me. This would not have been a good solution for everyone, nor the best one for cold weather. BTW, I had initially spurned the NeoAir because it sounded like a bag of potato chips when I lay down on it in the REI store to try it out. I don’t know if they changed the model or if it simply wasn’t as loud as I had thought, but I didn’t find this to be an issue at all.
Why I changed: The Snow Peak is a good stove. I’m not knocking it. I changed because I found I didn’t really want to cook; I wanted to boil water. And I wanted the water very hot, very fast. Plus the Piezo starter on the Snow Peak didn’t work as well in very low temperatures. Of course, nothing works as well in very low temperatures, so that’s not a surprise nor a reason not the buy the Snow Peak. This is one of the few times I got something that weighed more, but I didn’t need to carry a spare fuel canister since the JetBoil took 2-3 minutes to heat the water instead of 8+ minutes. But the truth is I don’t care much about cooking when I’m hiking. If I were camping, that would be different. When it was cold, I was most concerned with hot water for coffee or soup. Once it got warm, I skipped the soup and found other ways to get my caffeine. Personally, I found the JetBoil almost impossible to cook in. Meals burn easily in it. Others had better luck, so perhaps I’m not attentive enough. But if all you want to do is boil water, this is your stove.
MISCELLANEOUS CLOTHING CHANGES
I also changed most of my clothing.
SOCKS: I’d started with Thor-Lo hiking socks and almost immediately went to Darn Tough. They may be pricy at $ 19 each, but they really take a beating. They still look good after 1,000+ miles. I used silk sock liners for the first two and a half months until I had pretty much destroyed the liners. Silk is expensive and it is fragile (when wet), so it’s no surprise they didn’t hold up for as long. I wore them because I have extreme issues with blisters. The silk felt so good on my feet and the liners lasted long enough to let my feet toughen up. They were well worth the money to me. I had two pair of liners and I wish I had brought four.
SHIRTS: I had started with a few poly shirts. I replaced them with Smart Wool. Wool doesn’t hold body odors as long and it kept me warm. I loved the wool–until the temperature hit 90F. At that temperature, the shirts suddenly felt like a furnace and I had serious chaffing issues under the arms. When it’s that warm, though, your shirt doesn’t matter much. I bought a couple cheap shirts from a thrift store made of some poly material.
SHORTS: I mostly hiked in basketball shorts. I liked the length (almost to my knees) and the pockets. I wore them over silk long underwear or leggings when it was cold.
SHOES: I buy Merrells. Period. Use the thick, hiking sole ones, not the thin “barefoot” style. You need the extra sole, especially in Pennsylvania where the rocks are killers.
SMALL STUFF: I also made some minor changes to small gear, mostly to save weight. I bought a tiny headlamp, very small knife and got rid of anything I didn’t absolutely, positively need. By the end of the hike, my full pack (summer gear) was always less than 20 pounds, even with a liter of water and 5 days of food. With winter gear, it would not have exceeded 25 pounds. I cannot stress enough how important a light pack is.
I hope this information will be helpful to those who are hiking in the future. Again, this is what I learned from 4.5 months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
NOTE: I have plans to hike The Camino in the future. All this gear may get another tough use.
This year I was not able to complete the entire AT, but I got the first 1,405 miles done! Now planning to come back next year to finish. Only 780 miles to go!
My friends have worried so about me hiking alone. They’ve been concerned I might be eaten by a bear or bitten by a snake. Well, those are pretty low on the list of risks.